Living In Oz

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said, “The flag is moving.”   The other said, “The wind is moving.”  A sage happened to be passing by. He told them, “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”  – a Zen koan

Freud said that society is a universal human fantasy.  The nations, the cultures, the systems that run our lives exist primarily in our heads.  While social constraints like laws seem to be fixed and real, they only work with the cooperation of the regulated.  In orderly societies, people agree with the idea of obeying the law, and that idea resides in our brains.  There’s a large framework for understanding laws—what makes them acceptable, what makes them fair—that is wholly a mental construct and taught to us from the time we are born.  Laws only work when people share a common fantasy.

Syria is a good example of what happens when people stop cooperating.  A lot of Syrians have begun to imagine a different kind of society, and conflicting fantasies cause trouble.  People kill and die for them.  Just ask Marie Antoinette, who liked to fantasize about being a milk maid.  The actual milk maids imagined something else.

To Freud’s thinking, the unconscious part of our mind is always looking to be conscious, to act out its desires, to become real, and so we are beset with dreams, both waking and asleep.  Nighttime dreaming and daytime behaviors are not completely different for Freud, since they come from the same place.  Everything we do is an opportunity for our unconscious to find some release.  For example, our largely unconscious desires for protection and solace lead us to become attached to parent figures, real and imagined.  Whether it be God, or a person, or a leader, we look for someone to make things better.  It’s a way that we project our own needs onto the world, which was Freud’s point in the first place.

Sometimes, the fantastical nature of our social relationships can be disastrous.  Hitler comes to mind, or my first marriage.  Once our unconscious finds an outlet, all kinds of desires come streaming out.

Sometimes those fantasies pull us together.  Religion is a good example.  People congregate around a supernatural father/mother figure.  They enact repeated ceremonies to placate and supplicate.  They share particular beliefs about their benefactor that bind them into groups.

Larger society is the same; Emile Durkheim believed religion was simply society in a different dress.  God-Kings have been replaced by the more abstract concept of constitutional government, but the dynamic is identical.  People give their allegiance to what is essentially an idea, which is connected to a cascading number of other ideas, that eventually make up what it means to be us, as individuals and as Americans.  Even our individuality is distinctively American.  A sense of self isn’t any more substantial than the culture in which we grow up.

For instance, there is no genetic reason that American men are generally more stoic and American women more emotional.  Instead, it is part of how we learn to see ourselves.  We’re acting out concepts we’ve been taught, creating story lines and lifetime narratives according to scripts passed through our culture.  We dream of falling in love and it happens to us.  It doesn’t get more fantastic than that.  The line between fantasy and reality isn’t really there.  We’re always in Oz.

The Oz factor explains why societies evolve over time.  Illusions are malleable mechanisms.  The people who inhabit the mountains where I live have changed much more rapidly than the rocks surrounding them.  Fantasies can shift overnight.  Nothing holds them down beyond a consensus of the affected.  In the 1600s, we burned witches.  We don’t do that anymore.  The practice is no longer agreeable.

Today, we project hatred onto other types.  Gays and lesbians, or Mexicans, or Muslims come to mind, as the culture reflects the darker currents of our hidden selves.   Freud thought our unconscious was basically antisocial and concerned only with itself.  It’s why he was such a pessimist.  If children are not successfully socialized to gratify themselves through the accepted social daydreams, the results are not good.

When I worked in an alcohol rehab, I remember a client who was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.  In group sessions, he liked to emit enormously noxious farts.  He must have selected foods he knew would create poison gas.  Afterward, he’d sit back and smile as the room emptied, trailing curses.

At least he was non-violent, which isn’t true for many of the narratives we act out, personally and socially.  Conflicting dreams of dominance and submission flicker through the order of everything, obscuring the better angels of our nature.  But they are only dreams and desires.

Someday maybe we’ll see peace among ourselves.  All it takes is a consensus of the affected.  Right now, peace seems unimaginable, which is the problem in the first place.

And that’s what the koan means to me.


About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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